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Preaching in the Venetian Ghetto: The Sermons of Leon Modena
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The tenth sermon in the Midbar Yehudah was given in 1597 on the Sabbath preceding the fast day of Tishah b’Ab, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple. For Modena, the day acquired greater poignancy because it marked the end of his thirty-day mourning period for the death of his mother. The concurrence of personal bereavement and communal mourning provided Modena with the theme of his “prologhino.” The Scriptural verse (nose) with which he begins his sermon was carefully chosen to enable him to connect his personal situation with that of the community. Modena cites the verse, “How can I alone bear your trouble, your burden and your strife?” (Deut. 1:12), but following a rhetorical ploy which became widespread from the end of the fifteenth century, he fragments the verse, playing with the word “I bear” (esah) which in other contexts can have the meaning of “raising the voice.” He thus reads the verse “How can only I raise my voice in lamentation? How can I alone bear your trouble, your burden and strife?” He then gives the rabbinic text (ma’amar) which was to be analyzed in the last part of the sermon.

One of the characteristic modes of beginning a sermon was for the preacher to justify his call to the pulpit. In this case, Modena claims that he is the best candidate for the task of mourning the loss of the Temple because he is in a state of bereavement for the death of his mother, the worst disaster that can befall a man. Using kabbalistic imagery, Modena associates the loss of his mother with the loss of the Temple, for “our mother has wandered far away from us, that is the Shekhinah of God, truly, the holy mother.” After a somewhat facetious account of the reasons for lamenting the death of a mother more than that of a father, Modena proceeds to introduce the theme of the sermon, which is in the form of a question.[54] Should one feel more pain for the grief of the individual or for that of the community? He then ends the introduction with a rhetorical flourish aimed at winning the sympathies of the audience, or perhaps, suggesting to the reader the situation of the lachrymose Modena in the pulpit: “My sorrow has got the better of me. Look away from me that I might take a little comfort. Though I speak, my grief will not be assuaged.”

In the first part of the sermon, Modena examines the arguments for each side of the question introduced in the prologhino. He first puts the individual’s case, opening his discourse with an idiosyncratic, but revealing, use of the legal expression “A man never incriminates himself,” which in this context must be translated “A man values his own person.”[55] Since this proposition is true, Modena argues, one might infer that the individual sets the highest store by his own happiness and conversely, that his own suffering is the hardest to bear. An aggadah in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 7a) in which Moses asks God to grant him three requests supplies him with the proof of such a contention. Analyzing and questioning the aggadah in the manner demonstrated above in respect to the “artist” analogy, Modena comes to the conclusion that the three requests correspond to three specific and distinctive characteristics of Israel: (1) Moses asked that the Shekhinah should rest on Israel when he said, “Is it not that you go with us?” (Ex. 33:16). This, according to Modena, alludes to the physical existence of a specific people, Abraham’s descendants; (2) Moses requested that the Shekhinah should not rest on the wicked of the world when he said, “So that we are distinguished, I and your people” (ibid.). This alludes to the people’s distinctive spirituality that stems from their observance of the precepts; and (3) Moses asked God to show him His ways (ibid., v. 13). This is an allusion to the righteous, who are the crème de la crème. By means of an allegorical interpretation of Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (chap. 5) and an allusion to its interpretation in the Zohar,[56] Modena argues that the purpose of Moses’ request was to ensure Israel’s attachment (devekut) to the Shekhina in their lifetime.[57] He extends the idea of the specific when he points to the strange formulation in one of Moses’ requests. His statement, “So that we are distinguished, I and your people,” according to Modena, specifies the specific. Moses, whose prophetic powers were unique, who stood out as an individual among individuals, wanted to be the recipient of God’s favor. Thus, the good is enhanced the more specific and individualized it becomes. The same is true of personal disaster. The more specific the disaster, the greater the suffering. Modena discusses this with reference to the midrash in Ekhah Rabbati (1:9) in which it is stated that the demise of the righteous is more grievous to God than the ninety-eight curses in Deuteronomy and the destruction of the Temple.

Constructing a bridge to the other side of the argument, Modena quotes the popular saying, “The affliction of the many is semi-solace.”[58] Among the illustrations of this saying, Modena alludes to a story in the Fiore di virtù. Alexander of Macedon’s last instructions to his mother were to make a party after his death and to invite only those who had never suffered in their life. Nobody appeared at the feast. His mother was to take solace by the fact that she was in the same position as everybody else.[59] Modena reverts to the discussion between God and Moses when taking up the other side of the argument. Moses’ statement “that we are distinguished, I and your people” indicates that he did have altruistic sentiments. He included the people in his request in the knowledge that his good would be enhanced by the general good. The importance of giving priority to the good of the many is illustrated by the aggadah in tractate Ta’anit in the Babylonian Talmud, in which Rabbi Ḥaninah ben Dosa comes to the realization that his well-being exists at the cost of the discomfort of the rest of the world.[60] This leads to the idea that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Modena cites examples from the “gentiles who killed themselves for the sake of their countries.” Without naming his source, he quotes a story from book six of Livy which describes how a cavalryman was prepared to follow an oracle’s advice and throw himself into the earth’s chasm in order to avert the destruction of the entire population of Rome. He cites a similar case of self-sacrifice told in the Bible. Mesha, King of Moab, killed his first-born son in a desperate attempt to save his people from Israel (2 Kings 3:27). Modena seeks to understand these actions, which from a personal perspective he finds incomprehensible. Two alternatives faced the individuals in question: either to participate in the universally bad situation, or to eradicate the suffering of the many. Modena thus concludes that the more universal the disaster, the more momentous it is. This conclusion serves as a transition into the final part of section one. Modena returns to the theme of the day, the destruction of the Temple, the most universal of all disasters which affects Israel, all peoples of the world, and even God. And he ends with a reference to the nose. “How can I bear it by myself. It is the duty of every person to raise his voice in lamentation.”

In the first part of the second section of the sermon, Modena produces evidence from various aggadot that demonstrate that the destruction of the Temple was the most universal of all calamities. His opening text is a striking aggadah that describes the unique qualities of Mount Zion, “the joy of the whole world.”[61] Various texts are cited which demonstrate that Jerusalem was the focal point of the world. “Had the nations of the world realized what a boon the Temple was for them, they would have built fortifications around it in order to protect it.”[62] The famous aggadah describing God weeping over the ruined Temple brings the first part of this section to a dramatic climax.[63]

At this juncture, Modena raises the question of the relevance of the destruction of the Temple for his contemporaries. The mourning for the destruction of the Temple, he explains, has not become obsolete. In fact, one should mourn with even greater intensity because God’s decrees may be reversed at any moment. An interpretation of the first verses of chapter one of Lamentations then follows. Like the nose verse, the chapter begins with the word Ekhah (How): “How does a city sit solitary?” The significance of this word is further elaborated by means of a midrash which states that three prophets, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, all predicted the fall of Jerusalem using the expression ekhah.[64]

Having ended the second section by focusing on the meaning of the word ekhah, Modena then proceeds to examine the rabbinic text that he recited at the beginning of the sermon in the light of his foregoing comments.

Rabbi Abahu began his discourse with the verse “For they like man [Adam] have transgressed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7). The Blessed One said: “I put Adam in the Garden of Eden and gave him a commandment which he transgressed. I punished him by expulsion and by sending him forth and I lamented over him Ekhah [this is a play on the word ayekha, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:8) ]. So, too, I put his descendants into the land and lamented over them, ‘How does a city sit solitary?” ’ (Lam. 1:1)[65]

Modena’s analysis of this aggadah skillfully brings together some of the central points in his sermon. Adam was an individual, but his sin had universal repercussions.[66] Similarly, Israel’s sin, which resulted in banishment from their land and destruction of the Temple, had universal implications. The expressions “banishment” and “sending away” signify the different stages in God’s meting out of punishment. Initially, His intention was to punish Adam with eternal punishment, but then He simply sent him away in the hope that he would repent. When God realized that he had not repented, when He said to Adam in the Garden, “Where are you?” (ayekha), he was not merely inquiring where he was, but was crying out in pain, “How can it be that you do not repent?”[67]

Modena refers to the poignancy of the ending of the aggadah: “Who is there who on hearing this does not shed tears for our calamity?” He proceeds to comfort the people with the assurance that the reversal of the decree of banishment can be reversed by means of repentance. Using the Masorah Magna, Modena refers to the three passages in the Bible in which one verse ends and the following verse begins with the word “the earth”: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth . . .” (Gen. 1:1); “The earth faints and fades away…the earth also is defiled under its inhabitants” (Isaiah 24:4,5); “And it shall respond to the earth and the earth shall respond.” (Hosea 2:23–24). This lexical information that has been culled from the Masorah Magna is then overcast with kabbalistic imagery. Modena states: “The creation of the world from chaos was an act of undiluted mercy.…The people have contaminated the earth, but the earth will respond. Thus, if Israel repents, they will be answered and the earth will return to its former strength when our Messiah comes to build the Temple speedily in our days. May it be Your will.”

Towards the end of the sermon, after speaking of the tears which should be shed for “our calamity,” Modena states that he has fulfilled the aim of the sermon. He has assembled the arguments as to whether the good or evil of the individual is of greater moment than that of the general community. He does not offer any response to the question. Nevertheless, his interpretation of the ma’amar does implicitly answer his proposed question. The individual is inextricably linked with the universal. The actions of the individual Adam and likewise those of the individual people Israel had universal consequences.

Modena based his arguments on his own interpretation of various aggadot which were not explicitly concerned with the question he poses. And yet, there are various other aggadot and midrashim that deal with the question he raises in terminology strikingly similar to his own. In tractate Moed Katan in the Babylonian Talmud (14b) two views are given as to the meaning of the phrase “baẓar lakh” (“in your distress”) in the verse “when you are in distress…He will not fail you” (Deut. 4:30–31): “Any distress that is confined to the individual is real distress, but any distress that in not confined to an individual is not real distress.” The other opinion states: “Any distress shared by Israel and the nations is real distress, but any confined to Israel is not.”[68] These two contradictory opinions sum up Modena’s quandary. There is yet another rabbinic text which seems to underlie more than one aspect of the sermon. In tractate Yebamot (43b) of the Babylonian Talmud a practical legal problem is raised as to whether public mourning for the destruction of the Temple takes precedence over personal bereavement. Rav Ashi uses the same terminology as Modena when he refers to the mourning for the destruction of the Temple as “old bereavement” and the opinion is put forward that an individual who is in mourning for a personal loss is subject to more stringent regulations than those governing public mourning for the Temple. The implications of the halakhic question raised in the Talmud are exploited to the full by Modena.[69] He explains to his congregation that they should not entertain the idea that the past has no relevance for the present. Mourning for the loss of the Temple is not outdated, but has direct bearing on each individual and on the entire community. Even he, Modena, who had recently suffered the loss of his mother, participated in his community’s suffering and prayed for the rehabilitation of the people in their own land.

Modena’s sermon is constructed on the basis of rabbinic texts which he fashioned and transformed into a question of crucial relevance for his community. His adaptation of rabbinic materials demonstrates both his interpretative and preaching skills, while the structure of the sermon is clearly modeled on Panigarola’s guidelines. Panigarola gives detailed instructions for the construction of the sections, each of which should constitute a sermon in miniature (predichetta).[70] The prologhino should be like the opening of a madrigal, free-moving, leading up to the main body of the sermon but independent of it.[71] It should not be longer than half a page. The introduction to the first section should contain a proposition which is then developed by a series of arguments that are marshaled in such a way that the audience is not conscious of the formal logical principles underlying the discussion. The transitions between the various sections should be artfully constructed, like concealed hinges, to enable the listener to progress almost unaware from one point to the other.[72] The rigors of the first part should be alleviated in the opening of the second section by recapitulating or by producing proofs that contain entertaining or pleasurable narratives.[73] The end of the second part should sum up the whole sermon, and the epilogue should give expression to devout sentiments and sometimes, according to the occasion, exhort or castigate.[74]

In Modena’s sermon, the short prologhino functions as a prelude. The first part begins with the arguments for giving priority to the individual’s case. The introduction of the popular saying, “The affliction of the many is semi-solace,” which as it were presents an intermediate stage in the argument, serves as a transition into the second half of the first section. The ending of the first section anticipates the subject of the second part. The second section opens with a striking passage that, after the complexities of the first section, is less taxing on the listener’s attention. The interpretation of the ma’amar ties together the different elements in the discussion and brings the main point of the sermon, the reason for mourning for the Temple, into relief. The peroration exhorts the people to repentance.

This sermon is representative of the majority of the sermons in the Midbar Yehudah. Modena adapts some of the most characteristic elements of Jewish preaching to the recommendations of an Italian bishop. By the end of the sixteenth century there was a glut of Christian works on the art of preaching. Modena chose to model himself on Francesco Panigarola, who was one of the most famous preachers of the time and whose sermons became a model of style for both religious and secular litterati.[75] The Christian preacher had official status in post-tridentine Italy and the sermon was used as a vehicle for expressing the views of the establishment. For the Jewish preacher, there were no official rules and regulations. From Modena’s statements, it would appear that it was the demands of the audience that partly dictated the kind of sermon that was to be delivered. And yet, the role which Modena consciously assumes as preacher does bear affinity to that of his Christian counterpart. Modena prides himself on his sermons, which are composed with a fine eye to structure and style.[76] If Panigarola composed sermons to combat the heresy of the Reformers, Modena interspersed his interpretations of rabbinic literature with discussions that were aimed at challenging Christian views or simply posing fundamental questions that were intended to underline the meaning of Jewish tradition in contemporary society. His consciousness of the responsibility of the preacher to his congregation was derived in no small measure from what he had learned from his Christian neighbors.

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Preaching in the Venetian Ghetto: The Sermons of Leon Modena
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